On a picture-perfect day in March, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School professor Mike Parsons navigates a boat through the Gulf of Mexico and tells how he came to hire Adam Catasus.
“Adam came and knocked on my office door as a sophomore, I think,” Parsons says about the man hired in 2019 as a laboratory technician before he started his current role as the coordinator of education and research at FGCU’s Vester Marine & Environmental Science Field Station. “He asked if there was any work to do in the labs. I said, ‘Yeah, you can gut some fish.’ So he gutted a lot of fish. Now look at him!”
Parsons points over to Catasus (’15, bachelor’s, marine science; ’19, master’s, environmental science), captaining a second boat on their way to Kimberly’s Reef. Both men sport beards to make Hemingway proud, and it’s difficult not to see Catasus as a younger copy of Parsons.
Gutting fish isn’t just scut work in Parsons’ lab. His team uses the fish to study the harmful algae that produce toxins in Southwest Florida waters.
“But Adam gets to do all the fun stuff now,” Parsons says about Catasus driving the boats and heading out to do the science while his boss directs operations from behind a desk at The Water School. “I find the money and give him the keys.”
Parsons doesn’t only mean the keys to the boat, but also those to the office at Vester Field Station and research facilities down in the Florida Keys.
Catasus wouldn’t have any keys without having heeded some advice from his big sister. During spring break in his sophomore year, she told him to email his professors and ask what he could do to help. She even watched over his shoulder until he hit send on the emails, which led directly to Catasus knocking on Parsons’ door and getting that first fish gutting job.
What advice does Catasus have for current students trying to find an “in” to something bigger?
“Become something they need you for,” he says. “Learn a skill that fits the need; be indispensable.”
Beyond gutting fish and captaining boats, Catasus has learned several skills to meet the needs of The Water School, including boat maintenance and scuba diving. He also has a fair number of competencies that may fall under the category “other duties as assigned…”
Catasus and Dhruvkumar Bhatt, a geographic information systems analyst with The Water School, ventured out less than a week after Hurricane Ian, Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. Bhatt, who isn’t a boat captain and can’t swim, needed to fly a drone over an FGCU research site to document the post-storm overwash to see how the barrier islands changed.
The site is at Lovers Key State Park, between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach, but bridges were out, and roads were closed. The only way to access the site was in a shallow-bottomed Carolina Skiff with Catasus at the helm.
In the aftermath of a hurricane, what lurks beneath the surface can be just as deadly as the storm itself. “There were houses and cars and docks all in the bay,” Catasus says, “and the majority of channel markers were snapped in half so you couldn’t see them at high tide.”
Wreckage floated on the surface and was hidden under rust-colored water, churned up by the fierce winds that battered Southwest Florida, making it challenging to navigate safely. But Catasus and Bhatt couldn’t let storm debris and zero-visibility water get in the way of science.
“It was terrifying but important,” Catasus says.
The two scientists were at the site trying to fix a technical issue with Bhatt’s drone while Catasus kept one eye on the skiff, beached on the Gulf side of the island.
Around three hours in, the winds and tides changed. The skiff was being hammered with waves crashing on the beach.
“I’m trying to help Dhru so we can get this drone up,” Catasus says, “when I turn to check on the boat. And it’s just out there, 50 yards from land.”
Catasus acted fast and ran into the Gulf, keeping his head above water as he swam after the boat. He couldn’t see below the surface or feel the bottom. He reached the skiff, hauled himself aboard and navigated back to the island, where he ran the boat up on the beach so it wouldn’t go anywhere again. When he returned to his colleague, Bhatt pointed to the water Catasus had just been in.
“There’s a shark fin swimming around in about three feet of water,” Catasus says. “The water was so brown, all we could see was the fin. I would have had no idea if it was swimming next to me.”
After that, he didn’t much care about getting the drone to work.
An underwater classroom visit
Months later, in March, the brown water had cleared, and Parsons, Catasus and other team members are headed out on four boats. This is where our story started.
On Parsons’ boat is a WGCU documentary team, while Catasus transports a bunch of FGCU staff and reporters from WINK News and Fox 4. Everyone is heading out to witness the deployment of Kimberly’s Reef, the newest FGCU research site. Catasus shares his Spotify playlist with his passengers. At over 400 songs, it’s a little of everything you’d expect to hear on a craft used for adventure and discovery: some metal, some rap, all the Highwaymen and a little Jimmy Buffett. Catasus grins mischievously when he admits he’s titled the playlist “boat/doing stuff.”
Of course, his job is much bigger than “doing stuff,” boat maintenance or swimming with sharks. After Hurricane Ian, Catasus was the chief science officer on the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s ships, the R/V Hogarth and R/V Weatherbird II. He’s been intimately involved in Parsons’ ciguatera research since 2013 and has conducted red tide and artificial reef research since 2019.
Parsons’ team will be at Kimberly’s Reef at least monthly. Catasus will likely spearhead most of those trips while Parsons focuses on the administrative tasks associated with being the principal investigator on scientific research projects.
Because Catasus has the keys.